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Sparks: We must not let judges stop our actions

We can’t let the courts or the bureaucrats stop our actions, argues Jeremy Dewar

ELECTRICIANS IN Unite won an 82 per cent YES vote for strike action against Balfour Beatty Engineering Services. But within days of the result being announced, union officials called off the strike and agreed to re-ballot its members.
Balfour Beatty had threatened to go to a judge to ban the action. Unite officialdom, led in this instance by Bernard McAuley, did not even test a judge by having their day in court; they just caved in. This marks a new low in bowing before the anti-union laws.

To compound this unnecessary mistake, Unite has also offered to take the dispute to the arbitration service ACAS. This not only sends the wrong signals to electricians on the sites that a compromise can be reached (as opposed to the complete withdrawal of the new contracts), but it would mean having to stop any form of industrial action.

Rank and file campaign
But this conservative cowardice has been more than matched by the sparks’ creativity and courage, which has been on display by shedloads in recent months. The campaign to stop greedy employers imposing new contracts on the industry was launched when Steve Kelly and some other militants called a meeting in August; 500 workers turned up. They have now set up a Rank and File National Committee.

Since then a series of Wednesday demonstrations has been launched across the country. Some have been limited to raising awareness in a notoriously atomised industry, where workers are divided by a system of subcontracting and self-employment and the employers operate a vicious blacklist to keep out known activists. But others have been more militant, involving wildcat strikes.

In Manchester, for example, the sparks only had a couple of contacts on a Balfour Beatty site, yet they put up a picket line. The bosses got wind and told all workers they’d be sacked unless they crossed. Nevertheless, with the help of some students, they succeeded in getting an unofficial walkout. When the bosses made an example of a couple of sparks and sacked them, the militants came back and picketed again. In the end, Balfour had to take all workers back on.
Dozens of similar walkouts have taken place.

Last month the campaign took on a new dimension. On 9 November, a national demonstration in London saw 2,000 sparks roving from site to site, letting the bosses know they weren’t having the new contracts. Finally the state intervened, cops bludgeoned some of the men and kettled them for two hours.

But the sparks reignited their campaign on 30 November with more demos, this time linking up with civil servants on the Health & Safety Executive picket line.

Shut down Balfour

Now all eyes are on the greedy top contractor, Balfour Beatty. Rank and file meetings in London, Glasgow and Cardiff, originally organised in preparation for the official strike scheduled for 7 December, the day Balfour were going to impose new contracts, hastily organised an unofficial campaign.

The Glasgow meeting was the most successful and ended with 150 sparks occupying a Balfour site. But all three meetings agreed: the workers have spoken, with 81.6 per cent for action, so the strike is on!

As Ian Bradley of the Rank and File Committee told the London meeting:
“On 7 December… we need to get not just Blackfriars [Station site] out but every Balfour Beatty site out and any site of the seven [main contractors]. We’re going to win this dispute by old school methods of building rank and file committees.”

Ian is dead right – and the meeting agreed wholeheartedly. Leaflets are being prepared and a flyposting campaign organised in preparation for the action. A mass picket will be launched to try and shut down the Blackfriars rail station site.

The sparks have shown their solidarity with the students and public sector workers. They have built up a great relationship with Occupy London at nearby St Paul’s. Now they need the support of the whole movement to protect their livelihoods, re-establish militant trade unionism on the sites and smash the anti-union laws. Let’s give them everything we’ve got.

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